Thanks to the scores of nomadic communities that have settled in China’s capital over the centuries, Beijing is, at times literally, a melting pot of cuisine.
Their unique array of culinary characteristics – from the mutton-munching Mongols of the Ming Dynasty to the pork-loving Qing imperial court – sizzle in every wok and dish served up today. Rice growing and eating comes from the south. Hearty northern Chinese prefer noodles, breads, buns and steamed dumplings, called jiaozi and baozi.
Meat remains the staple of most dishes, cooked in various ways including deep-fat frying, roasting, instant-boiling, stir-frying, steaming and stewing. And the most famous dish in the capital is named after it: the Peking roast duck, a dish said to be first written into a recipe book in 1330 by Hu Sihui, an inspector of the imperial kitchens when the capital of China was in the city of Nanjing.
The popular royal dish moved with the court to Beijing in the early 15th Century and the many cooks who made a pilgrimage to the new palace kitchens of the Forbidden City to impress the emperors refined it over time.
Legend has it that Peking duck and other imperial fare were smuggled out of palace, giving the masses a taste for finer dining.
Culinary-wise, not much more happened in imperial Beijing until the 1911 overthrow of the Ching Dynasty. A food revolution took place that year as unemployed court chefs set up restaurants around the city. Their influence can still be tasted at many of the thousands of restaurants serving dishes like Sichuan duck smoked with camphor wood and tea leaves, and a popular dish called Over the Bridge Noodles.
As few as 40 years ago, China was suffering periods of famine. In the 1960s, tens of millions died of starvation in the Great Leap Forward. Meals were found in creative places and you can still eat scorpion and BBQ bugs in the city.
Food, to many Beijingers, is more than just filling one's stomach. It is a way to reflect the mood of the soul and most dishes have either a health-giving benefit or fable behind one.
Dining out at least once on unique Gui Jie street is vital if you want to taste the real Beijing. Just under a mile long, the street is lined with more than 100 restaurants, most illuminated by red lanterns and dairy lights.
The name of the street comes from the "ghost fairs” of stall holders who sold their groceries from late at night until dawn. The kerosene lamps used by the traders created ghostly shadows. Today the street still bustles into the wee hours, now with hungry customers, every night of the week.
If you are after more haute cuisine, Beijing has no shortage of fine dining experiences. Green T House is famed for its décor and its fusionist menu.
Or try meals served by officials from the ruling Communist Party. Some of Beijing's most authentic local restaurants are run by provincial governments, such as Chuan Ban (5 Gongyuan Toutiao; 10-6512-2277 ext. 6101), which serves fiery Sichuan food. Another, Yunteng Bingguan (Building 7, Huashi Beili Dongqu, Chongwen district; 10-6711-3322), serves Yunnan fare and is popular with vegetarians, said Sarah Keenlyside, who runs the travel company Bespoke Beijing.
Many restaurants offer menus in English, but if you head off the beaten track take a good guidebook. Most devote a few pages to how to order dishes. Failing that, just point at a delicious looking dish being wolfed down by a local.
Another way to learn how to negotiate the menu is by taking a Chinese cooking lesson and learn how to serve treats like gongbao chicken, braised pork rib with chili and fermented black beans, and steamed fish with ginger and spring onion.
Morning or evening cooking lessons often begin with a market tour where chefs show you how to pick out the freshest meat and vegetables for your dishes, and deconstruct the use of herbs and spices.
Condiments are vital to successful Chinese cooking and the Chinese have made picking the right brand and quality grade into an art form. Your chef may break down the differences between white and dark vinegars and soy sauces or types of garlic and chili. Some classes include basic knife and wok skills as well. But all finish with eating your creations for lunch.
One of the best schools on the city is Hutongcusine, a family-run operation with kitchens overlooking a traditional courtyard used as the dining area in the summer. It also offers dumpling and noodle making.
Foodie walking tour
There are also two- to three-hour food-themed strolls around the capital that visit hidden gems in hutongs and well known culinary sites such as the “snack streets” of Wangfujing’s and Longfusi. You will sample traditional Beijing food and learn the meanings behind names like “donkey rolling on the ground”, a popular snack among Chinese Muslims, and “oil fried ghosts”, a breakfast treat. To understand China’s long love affair with cha you can even take a tea tasting safari, which often includes a captivating tea making ceremony. Hias Gourmet offers several excellent gastro tours.